Western Wyoming Community College campus buildings

There was once a top-10 community college named Western Wyoming Community College. In the near future, we may be asking, “What did we do (or not do) to continue that tradition?”

Those seeking degrees, certification or general education beyond a high school diploma have many options. In 2019, the U.S. Department of Education counted more than 4,000 degree-granting institutions. It takes something special for a college to stand out.

When you read signing stories and hear students recount college trips, there are usually a few references to facilities or amenities, but the ones who are really excited talk about personal encounters. It’s usually a teacher or would-be mentor who helps them connect to the college. They may not know it at the time, but many are starting rewarding relationships that will stretch into the years to come. Good reputations and programs attract inquiries, but it takes great people to get students to commit to a school and a career. They turn aspirants into alumni.

The strength of those connections could be seen at virtual meetings of the Western Wyoming Community College Board of Trustees. During the meeting when the college board declared a financial emergency and discussed the desperate need to reduce costs, trustees marveled at the turnout, which topped 133 connections at one point with some screens displaying multiple viewers. Participants remained higher than usual at Monday’s meeting where budget cuts and program changes were made.

We’re pleased that the community is speaking up and explaining how cuts will impact the community, and it’s good that the board is avoiding layoffs at this time. There has been much testimony about the cataclysmic nature of job eliminations that occur in the middle of a school year. The education profession centers around the school year, and it’s unlikely instructors would be likely to even start interviews for another six to eight months. That is a long time to be without pay and benefits.

The loss of employees ripples out across the community. We won’t just lose instructors – we’ll lose our neighbors, coaches, tutors, and community volunteers. Some could go if fired; some could leave based on the writing on the wall; some could go because the place no longer feels welcoming or happy.

A brain drain among the faculty would eventually cause a similar deficit in the community, and the college’s reputation will diminish accordingly. That’s the type of stain that will linger for years – echoing beyond the current administration and economic obstacles. Even should things turn around, much will be required to compensate for past missteps. This is something we keep in mind as further cuts are required, for we know the rocky economic times are expected to linger.

At Monday’s meeting, more than one person noted that a healthy college is better equipped to survive these ongoing trials. We’re hopeful that changes are made with the goal of protecting the heart of the institution, student options and the reputation of the college.

Learning is the primary goal of the college, and that should be maintained above all other considerations. If staff cuts come, we want them to be justified by the fact that every other option was explored before we target our foundation. We also would expect that cuts in staff be mirrored by proportional cuts in administration.

Individual teachers will have a greater impact on Western than any other investment. Movies that focus on the life-changing influence of teachers are simply a reflection of memories you treasure if you treasure if you experienced them. Such interactions are irreplaceable and priceless.

During public comments, a current student talked about what made him choose Western over a different community college or a four-year institution. The advantages he talked about – more interaction with staff, more chances to engage in studies and become published in his field – come about from the hardworking staff presently in place. Without them, being a Mustang is a less valuable experience. Remove the people who make Western special, and the college is more likely to lose enrollment to another college.

The losses will be carried by the community and individuals. After all, there’s no way to tell what one misses when they don’t connect with the one teacher who could have sent them on a whole new trajectory. Remove that one-in-a-lifetime class, and the world is a different, less colorful place. Imagine the world where Mozart or Einstein didn’t have their guiding teachers.

When we look back on this crucible, we want our college to be standing proud and tall, and not driven into the ground. As the title implies, a community college is a reflection of the local community. There’s no denying our teachers provide the public face and beating heart of Western. When it comes to the question of “Will we keep our top-10 ranking,” we think the answer will be determined by how we treat and value our Mustang instructors.

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